The video below was shared to underline the effect of subtracting music from one of Star Wars: Episode IV‘s most famous scenes.
But what struck me most was the use of natural/naturalistic interior and exterior lighting. A believable visual depth exists across the town, catina, and its costumed menagerie, a tangible atmosphere mostly absent from the newer films because of their (over)reliance of post-production/CGI which tends to subtract the gradient for a layer of shimmer and sheen our eyes can naturally discern (Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One stands apart in this regard, the grittiest of the newer SW universe films)
The limitations of budget and technology of 1977 required Lucas and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor to shoot Star Wars like any other non-science fiction story, and it results in a recognizable “realness” (something apparent when catching the CGI Lucas details later tacked on in his obsessive mission to “improve” his trilogy, the cinematic equivalent of botched restoration in Borja).
Note the hooded figure seated in the background, framed between Ithorian Momaw Nadon (Hammerhead) and his companion. I’m pretty sure that costume looked only marginally better than the masks you can now buy for Halloween at RiteAid. But as illuminated here, he looks like the weathered and worn silent types you might really find nursing a Coors in some dingy bar in Buttbackward Nowhereville. What you don’t see is as important as what you do.
I also love the network of distillery pipes and chambers behind the punching bag-nosed bartender, the metallic reflections from its assemblage as bright as shadowy the bar’s miscreants. Taylor shoots faces in shadow instead of illuminating them from the front, magnifying creases, wrinkles, and the disapproving glances as camera follows Luke and Obi-wan.
Lucas and Taylor maintain a shallow depth of field throughout, effectively diminishing any unbelievable details visible across the 70’s costumes, while magnifying the intimate confusion of bumpkin Luke as he navigates a sea of deplorables. Only when panned out is everything in focus. The smoky white lighting around the bar – in combination with the film grain – is especially effective in adding to the ill repute atmosphere, implying its shadowy corners are where the majority of dealings are unfolding.
Check out these scenes from Scorcese’s Mean Streets, a film released four years before Episode IV. Again, shadows and light implemented as an extension of dialogue and narrative. You know this feeling because you’ve been here…even though you haven’t.
The gritty grounded parallels across American films of the 1970s make it my favorite decade. Whether lowbrow or highbrow, the force of artistry is strong…something sadly disappearing from the oeuvre of pop culture cinema where glimmering, bright, and colorful have blown out the beautiful presence of shadows.